Stephen and his father are taking the night train to Cork, Simon’s hometown, so that Simon can sell some property at auction. The passage of the train reminds Stephen of his youthful excitement at Clongowes, so different from his present disillusionment. He listens indifferently to his father’s drawn-out sentimental stories about his friends and youth in Cork. He falls asleep, and when he wakes up at dawn he feels disturbed by the sight of all the sleepers on the train. He tries to pray, but finds he can’t pray to any god, and his prayer takes on the music and rhythm of the train wheels.
Though Stephen is still very young, he feels that his capacity for wonder has disappeared. Even the romantic and evocative experience of a train at night leaves him cold. However, these are not the reader’s conclusions: they are Stephen’s. His real disillusionment is not more important than his self-conscious diagnosis of disillusionment. He is enchanted despite himself by the sound of train wheels.
In the morning, they sleep in a hotel. Over breakfast, his father chats with the waiter and the porter to find out which of his old friends are still alive. They then walk around his father's old college and look at the inscriptions on the desks. The word ‘foetus’ cut into the wood startles Stephen and gives him a vivid image of the student life of his father’s time – more vivid than any of his father’s jolly stories. The word 'foetus' haunts him and reminds him of his own impure thoughts. He is shocked to feel the outer world express his inner darkness.
The single word 'foetus', its particular sound and trail of implications, affects Stephen more than straightforward stories: his imagination is fickle, persuaded only by mysterious signs and coincidences. He will pursue poetry and fiction, rather than some other more straightforward mode of experiencing and understanding the world, to appease his imagination's whims.
His father interrupts his weary, painful thoughts with pleasant stories and fatuous advice about having fun and being gentlemanly. Stephen realizes that nothing in the external world matters to him unless it resembles his inner life somehow; he feels that he is cut off from reality and its easy pleasures. He thinks that he is losing himself, and tells himself his name, location, and various factual details of the day. Of his childhood, he can remember only names and facts, not feelings. He feels that his childhood self has died, or gradually disappeared.
In this transitional moment of his maturation, Stephen feels very acutely the gap between soul and body, between thought and observation, his conception of the world and its various realities. He is focused on an intellectual ordering of the world but feels confused by his sensory impressions. He also begins to feel completely removed from his childhood self, which lived only by the senses.
After Simon sells his property, he drags Stephen from bar to bar. Stephen is embarrassed by his father’s sentimentality, excessive drinking, and smarmy friends. He feels very distant from the men and their reminiscences, as though he were older than they. He thinks that he has forgotten how to feel happiness, and that his one true emotion is lust. He remembers lines from a Shelley poem that describes a similar feeling, and the poem distracts and consoles him.
Here, again, it is important to note the disparities between Stephen’s actual experience and his understanding of it. Though Stephen, from his abstracted, conflicted point of view, feels incapable of emotion, we have often observed Stephen experience joy and anger. Why does he forget or repress these feelings? Perhaps because they both shame and sustain him.